Major General (MG) Suzanne P. Vares-Lum, U.S. Army, was the scheduled keynote speaker for the 2020 APAICS Military Luncheon. Due to COVID-19 the event was cancelled. We are pleased that she is our featured 13 Questions for July.
Major General Vares-Lum is the Mobilization Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) at Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii. In this role, MG Vares-Lum served as the Acting Deputy Commander from 27 JUL to 17 SEP 2019, and Acting Chief of Staff from 27 SEP 19 to 2 DEC 19.
Prior to her current assignment, she served as the Mobilization Assistant to the J5, Director of Strategic Plans and Policy, U.S. Pacific Command from OCT 2015 to MAY 2018.
Major General Vares-Lum joined the Army Reserve as a Private First Class in 1986 and later commissioned as a Distinguished Military Graduate in the Military Intelligence Corps on May 15, 1988 through the Army ROTC program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Previous assignments include: Trailblazer Platoon Leader, 103rd (CEWI) Military Intelligence Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division; Company Executive Officer, Headquarters and Headquarters Support, 103rd MI BN; Division Artillery Fire Support Intelligence Officer, 3rd Infantry Division, Wurzburg, Germany; Battalion S-2, 29th Support BN; Commander, 229th Military Intelligence Company; G-2, 29th Separate Infantry Brigade; Commander, 2nd Battalion, 298th Multifunctional Training Unit, Hawaii Army National Guard (HIARNG); J2, Joint Forces Headquarters, Hawaii National Guard; Commander, 298th Regiment, Multifunctional Training Unit (RTI); and Hawaii National Guard Vice Chief of the Joint Staff and Chief of the Joint Staff (Army and Air National Guard).
Major General Vares-Lum established and led the Joint Intelligence Center in Balad, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom III.
Her military schools include the Military Intelligence Officer Basic Course, Military Intelligence Officer Advanced Course, Combined Arms and Services Staff School, Command and General Staff Officer’s Course, the U.S. Army War College (DDE), Airborne School, and Air Assault School.
Major General Vares-Lum received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in 1989, a Master of Education in Teaching in 1996 from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a Master of Strategic Studies degree in 2011 from the U.S. Army War College.
Her awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, and the Iraqi Campaign Medal. She is also a 2017 recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
1. Briefly tell us about your role as Maj. General and Mobilization Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. What are your responsibilities?
Serving as the Commander’s (Admiral Phil Davidson) Mobilization Assistant has been a tremendous honor and highlight in my 34-year career. In this assignment, I have had the privilege of serving as the Acting Deputy Commander and Acting Chief of Staff during brief periods. My primary role consists of serving as the USIINDOPACOM lead representative for military projects in Hawaii, Guam, and the Common Wealth of Northern Marianas. However, my duties also range from engagements with allies and partners in the region to representing the Command in bilateral dialogues. USINDOPACOM is the largest and oldest U.S. Geographic Combatant Command, responsible for all U.S. forces operating in the region, and it spans from the California coast to the West Coast of India, with 36 nations, 14 time zones, and is responsible for addressing four of the five security challenges identified in the National Defense Strategy.
2. You started your military career in the NCO ranks as a Private First Class. What did you gain from being an NCO that has helped you become a better officer?
My highest rank as an Enlisted Soldier was Private First Class (PFC), and I did not have the privilege of serving as a Non-Commissioned Officer. After Basic Training at Ft. Dix, NJ, I contracted to become a cadet in the University of Hawaii Army ROTC Program on my path to becoming an officer. Being a PFC for a short period gave me an appreciation of the backbone of our military – the enlisted and NCO Corps. Our enlisted force make up the bulk of our military and that’s where the magic happens. Officers provide the vision, mission, and resources, but it is our enlisted force who really help to transform a vision into reality.
3. Your personal hero/who inspired you?
My Grandparents, both from Maui, set a foundation for hard work and commitment as my Grandfather worked on Paia plantation and my Grandmother at Paia School and Kahului Elementary as a cook. They always gave 100 percent to their work and to their ‘ohana (family). Their three sons – including my Dad – all served in the U.S. military. They were examples of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage – LDRSHIP, which also happens to be our Army Values.
One famous Hawaii hero in whom I find inspiration is late Senator Daniel K. Inouye. He was a Medal of Honor recipient for his courageous actions in France during WWII while serving in the 100-442 Infantry Regiment – the most highly decorated unit of its size. He served as our U.S. Senator from 1963 until his death in 2012. He was not only a champion for the defense of our nation, but believed that what makes our country strong is the diversity and inclusion of all of its citizens.
3. What do you feel is your most important achievement?
Being able to serve our country as a Soldier for 34 years while balancing being a wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend has been a significant achievement for me. Also, I realize that being a woman and an Asian Pacific Islander, I am a minority in uniform, but I hope that I can inspire others like me to realize that they too can serve in leadership positions in our nation’s military.
4. Did you have a mentor(s) and if so, what was the most important advice they gave you?
I have been blessed with many mentors throughout my career. Colonel (Ret.) and Dr. Walt Kaneakua, former Executive Assistant for Military Affairs for Senator Inouye, has been a key mentor for me since I was a junior officer. He showed me that when we approach everything we do with the right intent to serve, we will find success. If you don’t think you are qualified, get qualified. If you don’t think you are ready, get ready. If you don’t know enough, seek advice and learn. If you don’t think opportunity will come, still be ready. Realizing a vision is a team sport – we need one another. As people have invested and mentored us, we as leaders have a responsibility to develop the next generation of leaders.
5. When you have downtime, what do you like to do?
I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, hiking together, and beach activities like paddle boarding, swimming, and “talking story.”
6. You joined the U.S. Army while in college. Was that a good experience and would you recommend that for others?
University of Hawaii Army ROTC program not only taught me how to be a leader in life, but reinforced the values my grandparents taught me. I built friendships that have been special to me for more than 30 years now – friendships built on a common experience of learning how to be resilient in the face of adversity and doing something bigger than oneself. I am an advocate of the military for young leaders, and I believe all young people should serve their community, state and nation in some capacity, whether in the military or in other organizations or efforts.
7. You earned a Master of Education in Teaching, how has that education helped you in your various commands?
It taught me how to coach, teach and mentor, and it also taught me the art of collaboration in planning and executing a problem or challenge. When I served as the Commander of the 298th Multi-Functional Training Regiment, I was pleased to see the Army moving toward discovery, collaborative, and inquiry-based learning, as research has shown that these methods provide multiple modes of learning or training.
8. What is your morning routine to get you ready for the day?
First thing in the morning, I pray and read inspirational scriptures which gets me in the right frame of mind and heart for the day. I try to do Physical Training in the morning, if not then, at the end of the day. I also review the goals for the day, and review the big rocks for the week.
9. Favorite book or podcast?
I have many favorites, but I find myself referencing Senator Daniel K. Inouye’s autobiography, Journey to Washington, in talks and speeches.
10. Joining the U.S. Armed Services is not the right fit for everyone. How can one serve their country in a meaningful way outside of the military?
In March 2020, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service published their final report on this issue. I believe that every young person should have the opportunity to serve our communities and country in a way that leverages their talents to improve the lives of others – hospitals, seniors programs, youth programs, environmental, and the list goes on.
11. Your biography lists your military awards and accolades. However, a single non-military award—the Ellis Island Medal of Honor—is listed. Tell us why this award is special to you?
The former US Indo-Pacom Commander, Admiral (Ret.) Harry B. Harris, now U.S. Ambassador Harris to the Republic of Korea, nominated me for this award. It is an American Award founded by the National Ethnic Coalition Organizations. It recognizes individuals who have made it their mission to serve others, and “they do so while acknowledging their ethnic heritage as they uphold the ideals and spirit of America.” I was honored to be a part of the 2017 recipients that included ADM (Ret.) James Stavridis and Col. (Ret.) Buzz Aldrin.
12. What was your biggest hurdle in your professional life? How did you overcome it?
My biggest hurdle was balancing being a mother and a Soldier at the same time, and feeling guilty about being away from home so often. When I deployed to Iraq during OIF III for a year, my oldest daughter was only 6 years old. Years later she told me that she felt proud to have me as a mom, and that she would not be who she is today, if she didn’t have to grow up so fast and learn to be independent.
13. How do you keep yourself grounded?
My faith in God keeps me grounded. I could not do what I do every day without being spiritually fed.